Thursday, July 12, 2012

Bring on the Night: Musings on "The City Dark"

I recently watched Ian Cheney’s (King Corn) 2012 documentary The City Dark on PBS’s Point of View series. Cheney’s documentary asks the question what do we, we humans living in modern cities and suburbs, lose when we lose the night, when we lose the stars in the sky to the "luminous haze" of city lights? The answers that Cheney gets from a variety of interviewees, astrophysicists, historians, cosmologists, biologists, ornithologists, zoologists, neurologists, criminologists, electric light retailers, and designers, is a lot.

What is so wonderful about Cheney’s The City Dark, among many other things, is that the documentary knows no disciplinary boundaries. The City Dark mixes and matches history to astrology, crime to public policy, ecology to urban design, and that is the way, in my opinion, it should be because the impact of electric light itself obviously knows no disciplinary boundaries.

I always learn something from the documentaries I watch. And I learned a lot from Cheney’s The City Dark. I learned that it is impossible to see more than a few stars in the night sky over New York City and other of the world’s cities. I kind of knew this because I remember looking at the incredibly beautiful and incredibly dense night sky above Jasper National Park in Alberta, Canada. I looked at it while I lay on a picnic bench on a clear September evening and thinking back, as a result, to my childhood in rural Indiana, where I remembered you could see a lot of the night sky, and thinking to my present adulthood in Provo, Utah, where I lived at the time, I remembered I couldn’t see much in the night sky, I had one of those moments of enlightenment, I am no longer in the city, so that is why I can see the night sky. I learned that suburbanization with its big box shopping centres and heavily lit parking lots has brought light pollution and the loss of the night sky to the suburbs just as it brought light pollution and the loss of the night sky to the cities. I learned that sea turtle hatchlings in Florida, sea turtles who, for centuries, have used the reflection of star light on the ocean they seek, are being confused by the presence of electric light pollution and being killed in significant numbers because they can no longer find the ocean they seek for safety and life. I learned that thousands of birds, confused by the lighted towers of Chicago skyscrapers, the city's own modern starscape, die every year by crashing into the buildings whose artificial starlight they are drawn to. I learned that humans need the darkness and that we may be seeing higher breast cancer rates in industrialised and industrialising societies among those engaged in night shift work in environments bathed in artificial because their bodies are suppressing melatonin as a result of the artificial light they now live their work lives in. I learned that artificial light has historically been linked to a fear of the dark and a fear of the crime that takes place in the dark. I learned that our rejection of the sky above us is feeding into our increasingly self-centred narcissism. I learned that there is a community called Arizona Sky Village near Portal, Arizona that was founded by stargazers for other stargazers and where the light pollution, as a result, is minimal and the night sky can be seen in all its stunning beauty. I learned that part of the problem with electric street night-lights is that they shine upwards as well as downwards. I learned that some communities are currently passing ordinances mandating the use of streetlights that shine downward. I learned that the person who designed the wonderful new High Line Park in the City intentionally minimized his use of electric light and made sure that all the light in the park shone downward.

The City Dark ends on this note of optimism. It ends with the hope that the use of downward shining electric lights might give us city and suburban dwellers some of our night skies back and might restore our sense that we are part of a universe that is much larger than ourselves. Let’s hope so.

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